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Dianna Bell

Research and Teaching

I study the history and ethnography of indigenous religions and Islam in Sub-Saharan Africa (especially Mali).

My current research focuses on mutual influences between indigenous religion and Islam in Mali. Drawing from ethnographic fieldwork in southern Mali, I show how Malians use the concept of baraji, which translates as into English as “divine recompense” or “merit,” as a framework for understanding proper religious practice and the role of indigenous religion and Islam in daily life. I theorize baraji as a form of value through which Malians discern and judge the different religious practices and daily choices they make throughout their lives. As a value system, Malians use baraji to posit equivalences between overtly Islamic pursuits and indigenous practices. Through an exploration of baraji, my research shows that one cannot understand the textures of Islam in West Africa without understanding the lasting imprint that indigenous practices have left upon it. In order to reveal the variable ways that people earn baraji as they move through their life course, my book project presents the life history of Amadou Diallo (an elderly and ethnically Fula man) and focuses on his attainment of baraji and shows how his acquisition of baraji changed drastically with age and circumstance, revealing the practice of Islam in southern Mali as both subjective and dynamically embedded in the life cycle. In addition to researching baraji, I study links between religion and ecology by exploring how people in southern Mali have used ritual to understand and manage their environment. I am currently researching the role of ritual during the Sahelian famine.

As an instructor, I have designed and taught a range of courses including: Religion in Africa; Anthropology and Religion; Islamic Traditions; Encountering Religious Diversity; Islam in Africa; and Ecology, Ritual, and Power in Africa.


Representative Publications

“Choosing Medersa: Discourses on Islamic verses Secular Education in Mali, West Africa,” Africa Today, vol. 61, no. 3. 2015

“Understanding a ‘Broken World’: Islam, Ritual, and Climate Change in Mali, West Africa,”  Journal for the Study of Religion, Nature, and Culture,  vol. 8 no. 3, October 1. 2014

(Forthcoming) and Joseph Hellweg, “African Religions.” In Oxford Handbook of the Anthropology of Religion, Joel Robbins and Simon Coleman, eds. 2014

(Forthcoming) update of “Mali.” In Worldmark Encyclopedia of Religious Practices, 2nd edition, The Gale Group and Thomas Riggs & Company. 2014.
"Understanding Currents of Islam in Mali." Fieldsights - Hot Spots, Cultural Anthropology Online, 2013.

Review of Harri Englund (ed.), Christianity and Public Culture in Africa. H-Net. 2013.